It’s been approximately a decade in online time since The New York Times published Ross Douthat’s cringey op-ed about the radicalization of “involuntarily celibates,” or “incels.” That’s time enough for the Trump White House to have cycled through three legal defenses and pundits to just have about exhausted the National Hot Take Reserves regarding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Whole meme ecosystems have died off and been replaced. Yet People Are Still Mad On The Internet about Douthat’s column, which – in case you were busy arguing about Kanye – bore the fastidiously ludicrous headline, “The Redistribution of Sex” and spent three paragraphs noodling about how “reactionaries and radicals” are worth paying attention to because they “see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane” before getting to the columnist’s money shot/hey-just-asking-here thesis: Could fuckable robots keep these angry loners from killing more women?
(I’ll just pause here to note that almost all discussion of sex robots skews not just heteronormative, but assumes that said robots would have more inputs than outputs, as it were.)
Progressives have been predictably if justifiably outraged. This is not the first time that “let them screw androids” has been proposed as a “solution” to gender terrorism – indeed, Douthat cites a previous “brilliant weirdo” to bolster his case. As others have pointed out, the theoretical problem with the “sex robot” policy is that it takes the incel’s testimony about motivations seriously, and then offers to re-shape the world to satisfy the incel’s desires (literally). As a society, we don’t appease any other kind of terrorism this way. Would offering white supremacists a virtual reality where they could abuse slaves to their heart’s content make them any less likely to commit violence in real life? We’ve arguably already been running that experiment for years now via Reddit and 4Chan forums, and all it’s accomplished is the Trump presidency.
Indeed, there’s a documented connection between white supremacist and incel culture: hate fosters hate, and seeing one group of people as less than human tends to make it easier to believe other sets of people are less than human. In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle draws out the distressingly easy journey many young men have made from flippant “anti-PC” trolling to proactive defenses of masculinity to rape apology to winking white supremacy. When people look at the “incel problem” as an isolated and pragmatic issue of “inserting tab A into slot B (or maybe C would do?),” they’re missing the larger structure being built.
Yet those who have been enraged by Douthat’s navel-and-below-gazing have, I think, somewhat missed his point when they assume that he’s making a positive argument to hand out fleshlights rather than curse the darkness. (Indeed, see his lengthy “that’s not what I meant” thread here.) Now, I know Ross a little bit and like him quite a lot in person (where his theatrical stuffiness comes off as self-deprecating rather than condescending), so I might be giving his column a more generous reading than it deserves. But, if you can make it past the clickbait, the column is actually a roundabout journey down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which Douthat stands in the Uncanny Valley, shouting, “Are you not entertained?” Or, as he put it in his somewhat more diffident conclusion, “Whether sex workers and sex robots can actually deliver real fulfillment is another matter.”
See, if you read him in the good faith he may not deserve, his discussion of sex robots is a cautionary tale about the probable outcome of a culture in which “the sexual revolution” has “privileg(ed) the beautiful and rich” while “the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to each other” – even as the “essentially Hefnerian” (!) message about sex is that “the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated.” In that self-indulgent but soulless environment, people will “place their hope for escape” in some form of revolution – “political, social or technological.” In other words, step three: SEX ROBOTS, obviously. And if you find them creepy? Good. Blame the liberals. (Of course there is an alternative, conservative response, he opines mawkishly: “reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and special respect owed to the celibate.” You can practically hear the back of hand hit his forehead as he despairs about the unlikelihood of this coming to pass.)
So much attention has been given to the sex robot/incel part of Douthat’s argument (which is, let’s face it, his own damn fault if not part of the plan), I don’t think anyone has bothered to engage with his straight-faced Marxist depiction of the sexual marketplace (complete with neoliberal deregulation). Not that it deserves much engagement; the journey he takes to sex robots starts with a bad faith perversion of the “sexual revolution” into a simple marketplace of winners and losers, a gross oversimplification of the multiplicity of human relationships into a form of “income inequality” that he can pretend to take seriously. His entire column flows from positing that liberals care about the “just redistribution of property and money,” so shouldn’t they care about the just “redistribution” of sex? In other words, Douthat’s real argument is as rooted in the dismissal of economic justice as it is in seducing us with mechanical vaginas. He throws in some snarky aside about legalizing sex work as evidence that we’re all just diddling down the road to instituting a legal right to getting it on, anyway.
Where Douthat seems to be playing ignorant is the fact that legal commercialization of “sex work” is not the same thing as treating sex as a product – a commodity that can be redistributed like money or food or even health care. Here’s the thing: sex exists in relationships (commercial or private). It’s bound not by the raw zero-sum logic of “buyer and seller,” but the more complicated and mysterious calculus of contracts, wherein both (or multiple) parties have rights and expectations, rewards and stipulations.
Douthat seems to raise the power of progressive sway in our culture – with its pesky value of distributive justice – only to indicate that our current mores are retrograde, “essentially Hefnerian.” Here, I actually agree with Douthat’s assessment, but most progressives I know want to change that status quo. I do assume by “Hefnerian” he means, “mindless hedonism that privileges male pleasure.” We just call it “rape culture.”
But Douthat’s most intellectually dishonest maneuver is his self-justifying preamble, the one where he talks about taking seriously “the extremists and radicals and weirdos,” since “the ideological mainstream isn’t adequate to the moment” and “nobody can decide whether that means we need purges or pluralism, a spirit of curiosity and conversation or a furious war against whichever side you think is evil.” I am all for considering radical ideas, but what Douthat has done with his column is add intellectual weight to the side that sees women’s bodies as just another bargaining chip. He hasn’t struck a blow against Hefnerian hegemony – he’s validated it. And, most gallingly, I am pretty sure he did it for the clicks.
Conversations about the ideas from the ideological extremes are worth having, but publishing an op-ed that legitimizes the demands of a terrorist? Maybe talk it over with someone you trust first. Douthat, of all people, should appreciate the value of distinguishing between intimate exchanges between two people and loud, showy Twitter gang-bangs. What is fulfilling and illuminating in private gets degraded and distorted in public. In other words, Ross, call me! I am not a robot.